Who needs superheroes?
For the past decade we have been swooped on by Spider-Man and rescued by Avengers, and now the Dark Knight is rising again. Holy syndication, Batman, how did this happen, asks LIAM BURKE, while PATRICK FREYNElooks back on how the phenomenon started, with ‘Superman’ and a string of other cult comics
WHETHER The Dark Knight Rises breaks the box-office records newly minted by Marvel Avengers Assemble or Robert Downey Jr’s super squad hold their ground, one thing appears certain: the most successful film of 2012 will involve superheroes.
In 2002 the unprecedented success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man found superheroes leaping from the fringes of pop culture to the centre of mainstream media in a single bound. Over the past 10 years you could hardly miss the garish costumes, superhuman feats and co-ordinated colours. How did it happen? How did orphaned vigilantes, costume-clad demigods and schools of mutants come to dominate modern entertainment? Why have we spent a decade under the cape?
Unsurprisingly, as the modern superhero movie trend gained momentum when Spider-Man broke US box-office records in the summer of 2002, many were quick to link the renewed popularity of superheroes with post-9/11 sentiment. It was easy to draw parallels with the origin of these masked adventurers on the comic-book page; some of the most famous characters, such as Superman, Batman and Captain America, were created on the eve of the second World War and their popularity rocketed as their Nazi-smashing adventures offered readers respite during those difficult times.
Despite comics today being a rarefied pastime, their adaptation to film, television, video games and other media has ensured that these characters enjoy cross-generational recognition. It could be argued that post-9/11 comic-book heroes indulged the desire of a country rocked to its core to escape to a simpler time. The film-makers certainly played on such wish fulfilment, with many superhero movies offering optimistic reworkings of 9/11 narratives. Batman prevented terrorists crashing a train into Wayne Tower at the climax of Batman Begins, and Superman’s first act in Superman Returns was to land a falling plane safely in that crucible of Americana, a baseball stadium.
However, while these films might have found a receptive audience post-9/11, Tom Brevoort, the senior vice-president of publishing at Marvel Comics, who is responsible for the print versions of Spider-Man, X-Men and the Avengers, attributes the change to special effects. According to Brevoort, “the technology has got to the point where you can legitimately realise some of these characters on film in a way that you might not have been able to do 20 years previously.”
Throughout film history, certain genres have flourished in the wake of technological advancements. Synchronised sound gave us the musical; historical epics benefitted greatly from widescreen; and it is possible that superhero movies are simply a natural outlet for digital film-making techniques.
Certainly, Spider-Man can now swing with pixel-powered panache, but even in predigital times Christopher Reeve’s graceful pirouettes made audiences believe a man could fly.
Perhaps the greatest consequence of the digital age is not the verisimilitude it allows these heroes but the power it has given the once-marginalised superhero fans. Before the internet these enthusiasts had little opportunity beyond the narrow boundaries of fandom to create awareness of their pop-culture icons. With the dawn of social networking, however, fans began using the skills they developed on fanzines to navigate and utilise the web.
Annexing much of this new digital arena while most were still lost in cyberspace, these early adopters were able to shine a spotlight on their niche interests, including superheroes. The publicity generated by the Comic- Con convention in San Diego last week shows how these fans have repositioned what was once dismissed as geek culture in the mainstream.